By Rabbi Stuart Gershon, D.D.
Board Member, Carolyn Dorfman Dance

This Wednesday, January 27, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, established by the United Nations in 2005 as a memorial day to commemorate the Holocaust.

UN General Assembly Resolution 60/7 urges every member state to honor the six million Jewish victims of genocide, to remember the millions of other Nazi victims, and to develop educational programs to help prevent future acts of genocide.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a reminder of the enduring relevance of the Holocaust to address contemporary manifestations of racism, prejudice, and authoritarianism.

What are the lessons of the Holocaust for this moment?

One overarching lesson of the Holocaust is that democracies can and do fall.
In shockingly short order, democratic values eroded then collapsed in Nazi Germany. When a democracy falls, citizens turn on and betray their fellow citizens. When democracies die the result is unbridled hate, lethal hate that can directly lead to the most barbaric persecution or to the ultimate horror of genocide.

Holocaust history speaks to the challenges we face today, providing powerful lessons on how to overcome them:

One cause of the Holocaust was that outrageous lies went unchallenged. The biggest lie of all revolved around multiple anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. Jews were accused of an international conspiracy to rule the world. It was claimed that Jewish conspiracy also lay behind Germany’s defeat in World War I and its postwar humiliation.

Another cause of the Holocaust was that antidemocratic norms were allowed to take hold. How? The Nazi leadership encouraged and defended the worst tendencies among the German people – lawlessness, extremism, and hate. The Nazi regime pursued a policy of creeping dictatorship. But the vast majority of the German people collaborated with authoritarianism because it came with political, economic, or social benefits.

A third cause of the Holocaust was unchecked German ethno-nationalism. Grounded in the doctrine of German racial superiority, the Nazi regime sought to establish an all-German ethno-state. The Nazi regime pushed an extreme racist agenda – to annihilate an entire ethnic group — in the name of a racially pure Germany.

These forces, in combination with others too numerous to mention here, transformed Germany into a genocidal state. It perpetrated mass murder on a then unimaginable scale – 6 million Jews –roughly one third of all the Jews in the world.

It should be of great concern to us that all three of these forces are active in America today:

Conspiracy theories: QAnon and a myriad of far-right militia groups promote multiple conspiracy theories — from a deep state intent on taking away our individual liberties, to a secret cabal who worship Satan and abuse children, to the secret plot by people of color to commit “white genocide” — all of which are interlaced with accusations of Jewish complicity and historical antisemitic stereotypes.

Antidemocratic norms: Political scientists report “democratic erosion” among the American electorate. There is growing approval among Americans for the use of force to achieve political objectives, as well as “strong-man” leaders who will “save” the nation from some perceived threat. Meanwhile, Americans’ allegiance to the rule of law, freedom of the press, and Constitutional protections is declining.

Ethno-nationalism: The United States will transition from a white majority to a white minority nation in 2042. This consequential demographic inversion not only fuels the cancerous persistence of racial hatred in America. It also activates a significant percentage of the American electorate to push an agenda that perpetuates America’s white majority rule and character. Changing demographics also motivate far right extremists to agitate for a race war in order to transform the United States into an all-white ethno-state.

All these forces were on full display at the assault upon the Capitol on January 6. We saw white mob rule, neo-Nazi slogans, brutal violence against law enforcement, gleeful lawlessness, Confederate flags, and nooses.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day reminds us of our individual responsibility to speak up in defense of American democratic principles and universal moral values. We must hold accountable all our elected officials to condemn conspiracy theories, to reaffirm the sanctity of democratic norms, and to repudiate exclusionary thinking about who is a “true” American.

Regardless of your faith, your country of origin, or the color of your skin – we are all Americans.

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